The Sparkle Is Back As West Ham Prepare For New Year Fireworks At Selhurst Park

Declan Rice returns to bolster West Ham’s position in the Premier League top six. Let’s hope there is no New Year’s hangover – and no more dodgy VAR decisions

It was fantastic to see West Ham get back to winning ways on Tuesday, even if it was against a woefully disorganised Watford outfit. The Hornet’s generosity with space in midfield space and an accomplished performance from Mark Noble was more than enough to compensate for the absence of Declan Rice. It is difficult to understand what Ranieri is attempting to do at Vicarage Road, but he might not want to unpack all his belongings just yet. For such an experienced manager his team’s approach was naïve and shambolic.

Unfortunately, erratic officiating once again played a far too dominant role in proceedings. Darren England and Jonathan Moss are the latest candidates in a long line of festive comedy double acts. How the challenge by Tomas Soucek prior to Jarrod Bowen ‘goal’ was deemed to be a clear and obvious error, I’ll never know – and how far back in play are they supposed to go in the search of a misdemeanour? And how the referee initially gave a corner after the keeper’s foul on Bowen was baffling. The most comical decision of the night, however, was the foul given against Michail Antonio when he was shoved by the Watford defender into one of his teammates.

The quality of refereeing in the Premier League continues its downward trend. It is a clear and obvious problem for the authorities to address. To be fair, who in their right mind would want to become a referee given the abuse they are likely to get when starting out at grass roots level. Perhaps, it’s why only those with psychopathic tendencies make it all the way through. Why we end up with those who crave the limelight; when good refereeing should be mostly about going unnoticed.

The victory at Watford increased the Hammer’s final tally of league wins in 2021 to 22. A record year by all accounts, and providing a 53.7 win percentage in the league and 54.7% in all competitions. Well done to the manager and players!

In the long held tradition of new year lists, here are my top three bubbling moments of 2021:

  • The pulsating and nail biting 3-2 home win against Liverpool to end their unbeaten run and lifted us into third place in the table
  • The 3-1 swaggering away victory at Aston Villa on Jesse Lingard’s debut
  • The 4-1 win over Leicester in August which hinted that the previous season might not just be a flash in the pan

The most depressing or frustrating moments:

  • The disappointing 3-2 defeat at Newcastle in April – Craig Dawson’s reckless sending off and recovering from a two-goal deficit only to be suckered by a late Newcastle winner
  • Defeat at home to a newly promoted agricultural Brentford side, courtesy of a poorly defended last-minute header from an unnecessarily conceded free-kick  
  • The late Noble substitution and last gasp penalty miss that gifted Manchester United all three points in September
David Squires – The Guardian

My top players of 2021 – Rice, Soucek and Bowen

There has been a changing the guard at today’s opponents Crystal Palace as the ageing legs and dull mediocrity of Roy Hodgson’s legacy starts to be dismantled. How the noisy (some might say irritating) Holmesdale Ultras managed to get so excited by the football equivalent of elevator music is both astonishing and to their credit.

Under the guidance of Patrick Viera, the Eagles (or Glaziers as I used to know them) are slowly transitioning into a more youthful and enterprising unit.  It has allowed them to establish a comfortable mid-table position and become less reliant on former talisman, William Zaha – who now spend most of the game disputing everything and getting increasingly angry.

Viera still has a tough job on his hands if the team are to become anything more than perennial survivors. There is plenty of dead or dying wood to shift (Ward, Tomkins, Kouyate, Ayew and Benteke) while it must be a worry that his best player is on loan from Chelsea. Gallagher was man of the match in the return fixture earlier in the season and one of few opponents who has manage to disrupt Declan Rice’s ascendency.

As with all games these days, final line-ups will be subject to results of late Covid tests. Today will also be the last opportunity before selected players pack their bags and set off for the African Cup of Nations. West Ham will lose Said Benrahma while Palace will go without Zaha, Kouyate and Ayew.

All being the well, the single West Ham change from the team that started in midweek will be the return of Rice at the expense of Noble. It will be interesting to see how the Rice/ Soucek dynamic plays out after the Czech’s more influential and advanced role at Vicarage Road. If David Moyes can achieve optimum balance between Rice’s forward drives and Soucek’s late runs, it would prove formidable.

This is a game that usually has plenty of goals in it. The last time the Hammers failed to score against Palace was 16 games ago – Fat Sam’s West Ham going down 1-0 at Upton Park in April 2014. In the 15 matches since there have been a total of 50 goals scored. It wouldn’t be any great surprise to see the new year’s honours being shared today, but with my optimistic hat on will go for a 2-1 away win. If that does happen, it will be only the host’s second home defeat of the season. COYI!